“I’M SURPRISED I’m still alive,” says 42-year-old Johnny Clifton, after his adventures through more than 160 countries.
Clifton isn’t your everyday traveller, he attracts trouble.
While many travellers delight in getting off the beaten track, Clifton goes a few steps further. “Everyone says I’m crazy, but it’s like an addiction. I feel like I’ve passed a big exam when I get to see things 99.9 per cent of tourists won’t ever see.”
Clifton has made holiday destinations out of the likes of North Korea, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“I met a guy in Pakistan back in 2007 and he agreed to take me across the border into Afghanistan. We went through some checkpoints and arrived on a street that looked like an old Western town, full of gun shops.”
Not content to see the sights from the relative safety of his vehicle, Clifton asked to get out and look around. “I went into a shop and asked for a picture with the owner. He pulled out a pistol and pointed it at me … but, I got the picture.”
Having a gun pointed at you would make most people reconsider their approach to travel, but Clifton’s thirst for adventure cannot be quenched.
Many close shaves followed. In Benin he was bashed by locals with boat oars, in Nepal he survived a small avalanche, he crashed a motorcycle in Mongolia, was ambushed by guerillas in Colombia and if all that wasn’t enough, he escaped a stabbing in Nigeria and had another gun levelled at him in Brazil.
It’s all a long way from the tiny village of Mulbring in the Hunter Valley where he grew up. He says the monotony of life in a small town along and his day job as an underground mining electrician were part of the reason he sought adventure.
“I spend about 36 hours each week underground. It’s kind of depressing but it gives me the money to travel. It’s like a reward for doing a hard job, to get out and go travelling.”
In 2013, he rewarded himself with a trip to Rwanda. In search of gorillas, he booked a tour with a local guide. As the guide cut a path through dense forest with a machete, Clifton made his own discovery.
“I saw a mother and baby gorilla and veered away from the main group to take a video.”
Mother gorilla wasn’t quite in the mood to say cheese, though.
“All I remember is that the mother snarled at me … she grabbed me and threw me three metres onto my back. They just seemed such peaceful animals, I wanted to get a great picture. The guide told me I’d get myself killed.”
Clifton’s not quite ready to say goodbye to this life though — he still has more countries to visit: “My aim is to visit every country in my lifetime.”
In January, a tiny reason to stay alive and perhaps stop being so adventurous arrived. Clifton’s baby son, Jonas, has caused him to his reconsider his travel plans. Well, at least for a little.
Clifton travelled solo to Madagascar in June this year, leaving behind his wife and five-month-old.
Australian government travel advice indicates “armed robberies and violence occur regularly” in Madagascar and warns Australians to exercise a high degree of caution.
“I admit I nearly cancelled,” says Clifton. “My friend who had been there said people were shot at when he was there. Before my son was born it would not have worried me.”
He went ahead with the trip and says he did try to exercise caution. Perhaps not the recommended degree of caution; he still managed to find himself facing a gun-wielding local after jumping out of a car to photograph a herd of zebus. His guide explained that the local was probably in the midst of stealing the animals and wanted to protect his identity.
Clifton says he just gets caught up in the moment: “I just love to feel like I’m roaming free.”
“I’ll wait to do the dangerous countries like Somalia and Libya when I’m older so my son will still have his father 100 per cent alive. I’ll still take risks, just smaller risks.”
In the meantime, he’s hoping Jonas — who had a passport at three months of age and has already visited Singapore, Turkey and Lithuania — will learn from his travels.
“Travelling opens your mind and makes you an interesting person. I want my son to see the world and realise there is good and bad in every country.”
He met his Lithuanian-born wife while couchsurfing and says she is happy for him to continue his travels.
“She never complains about anything. She’s a big traveller herself, so she understands my passion. I guess that’s why I married her.”
Luck and experience help him scrape through while on the road, he says. “I’ve worked my way up from safer countries to the more extreme destinations. You get to know all the tricks and scams and you build your instincts. I feel like I’m just lucky, like I have an angel with me. If I can’t get out of a situation myself, someone always seems to appear and rescue me.”
Sometimes a little Aussie ingenuity helps, too. While waiting for a train in Mauritania, Clifton says he turned a group of angry, armed men into friends.
“I told them I didn’t have the money they wanted but they could have the koala keyrings I’d packed for kids. They were so happy.”